Obituary: Wallace Cunningham DFC - One of Churchill’s ‘Few’, the first Glasgow airman awarded the DFC in the Second World War

Wallace Cunningham DFC
Wallace Cunningham DFC
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Born: 4 December, 1916; in Glasgow. Died: October 4, 2011, aged 94

ON 20 August, 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged over the south of England and the German army was poised across the Channel ready to invade, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood up in the House of Commons and paid a special tribute to the RAF fighter pilots who were doing battle against the Luftwaffe overhead. “Never in the field of human conflict,” he declared, “was so much owed by so many to so few.” Wallace was one of Churchill’s famous “few”.

As a patriotic young man Wallace joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis and he was trained to fly at Prestwick using Tiger Moth biplanes.

His instructors included prominent aviators of the time such as the Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale, who had taken part in the first flight over Mount Everest in 1933. Wallace recalled that they seemed to him to be “like characters from the Boy’s Own Paper”.

On the outbreak of war in 1939 Wallace was called up for RAF service and completed his training at Shawbury and at Aston Down, where he received his commission. He was desperate to fly Spitfires and in June 1940 he got his wish when he was posted to 19 fighter squadron based at Duxford in Cambridgeshire. The Battle of Britain was about to begin.

19 Squadron was to become part of Douglas Bader’s famous “Big Wing” during the Battle and Wallace was in the thick of the fighting. During that epic summer he destroyed five German aircraft (which made him an ace) and in September 1940 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The citation reads that “Pilot Officer Cunningham… has shown great personal gallantry and splendid skill in action.” He was the first Glasgow airman to be awarded the DFC in the Second World War and King George VI pinned the medal on Wallace’s chest when he visited Duxford a few weeks later.

In later life Wallace wrote that “it is difficult to be sure that my thoughts at the time are not what I now think I ought to have believed. Old men’s memories do a lot of editing. However, fighting over one’s own land is fulfilling and even the more juvenile enthusiasts among us became aware of the responsibility and the privilege placed on us.”

One in six of Churchill’s “few” was killed during the Battle of Britain (with many more badly injured) and Wallace confessed that he never expected to survive. Indeed, he was reconciled to that.

But survive he did and in 1941 he took part in night interception sorties, convoy escort duties and, increasingly, in missions over the Dutch coast. By this stage he was a senior flight commander and inexperienced young pilots who joined the squadron gratefully remembered Wallace as being very protective towards them. He put this down to the old Scout master coming out in him.

However, the strain of continuous combat flying for over a year was now beginning to tell. He was suffering from styes in his eyes and boils on his body. He badly needed a rest.

He did indeed get a rest, but it was a prolonged one and not quite what he had expected. On 28 August, 1941 he was ordered to accompany Blenheim bombers on a low-level bombing mission on targets in Rotterdam harbour.

His job was to act as a decoy for anti-aircraft fire – which he did very successfully.

His spitfire was hit and in a piece of superb airmanship he crash landed on Rotterdam beach and came to rest close to a German gun post. In the officers’ mess he was given a tomato sandwich and a glass of champagne, and a German major, who sat rather curiously nursing a miniature Spaniel on his lap, told Wallace that “for you the war is over”.

In one sense he was right in that Wallace was now out of the fighting. But in another sense this was just the beginning of a new chapter in his war. For nearly four years Wallace was a prisoner of the Germans. Unlike bomber aircrew, who might expect to the shot down and captured, most spitfire pilots did not anticipate becoming prisoners of war.

Yet Wallace seems to have adapted well to life behind the wire and, in true RAF style, played his part in harassing the German guards.

He spent part of his time in Oflag VIB where Douglas Bader persuaded him to help dig a tunnel. Unfortunately, this escape attempt had to be aborted when it was found that a compass error meant that the tunnel came up right under the perimeter floodlights, and Wallace always recalled having to hurriedly crawl back to his hut in the dark alongside Bader with the latter’s artificial legs “rattling (said Wallace) like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz”.

However, most of his captivity was spent in Stalag Luft III, the camp made famous by The Great Escape. Fortunately, Wallace did not take part in this ill-fated episode, which took place from a neighbouring compound, but perhaps his claim to fame was his role in the legendary Wooden Horse escape.

He was one of the prisoners who spent hours jumping over a vaulting horse near the perimeter wire while Eric Williams and the others dug their tunnel below. This escape was successful and the event was made into a classic film in 1950.

Yet Wallace was always keen to remind us that he did do some academic study while in the camp. Indeed, he actually sat his examination for the Institute of Electrical Engineers while in Stalag Luft III. Unfortunately, the examiners did not see eye to eye with him and he failed.

Wallace’s excuse – and it is probably an excuse that is unique in the history of the institute – was that he was distracted by the noise of the guns from the eastern front as the Russians approached the camp.

The approach of the Russians signalled that the end was in sight but there was one final ordeal. The Germans decided to evacuate their PoW camps in the east and in January 1945 Wallace and his fellow prisoners were forced to take part in the so-called “Long March” westwards from their camps in Poland.

They were marched for several weeks through deep snow, in temperatures of minus 15C, and with precious little food, but Wallace seems to have remained remarkably ebullient. He was said to have kept his party of marchers cheerful with his repertoire of camp fire songs: the old Scout master in him again. Eventually he ended up in Stalag IIIA, near Berlin, where he was liberated by the Red Army and then handed over to the Americans on the Elbe. “It was magic,” he wrote, “to be back in friendly hands.”

After the war Wallace simply got on with the rest of his life and, apart from the occasional reunion, did not seem to dwell much on the past. But in the late 1990s I had the good fortune to meet him and I persuaded him to come and speak to my History students at Edinburgh University about his wartime experiences.

He was a little wary at first – in the RAF parlance of the time he was suspicious of “line shooting” – but his immense charm, his fund of marvellous anecdotes, and his natural empathy with young people made him an instant hit with the students. And they in turn knew that they were in the presence of someone very special. Over the following ten years or so Wallace and I were lucky enough to be invited to a number of schools, universities and RAF units to talk about the war.

I would normally be the “warm up act” before Wallace answered questions from the audience (I would also act as “interpreter” if his wretched hearing aid went on the blink) and I have a kaleidoscope of wonderful memories of these trips.

At Churchill College, Cambridge, Wallace was allowed to hold in his hands the actual script that Churchill used to deliver the famous “Few” speech in the House of Commons in August 1940; at RAF Leuchars the Tornado pilots insisted on manhandling him into the front seat of one of their jets to show him the controls; at the University of Aberystwyth the packed lecture hall queued for half an hour at the end of the evening to get Wallace’s autograph.

And at Fettes College I will always remember a trembling young pupil bravely standing up and asking Wallace a question in front of his school: “Mr Cunningham,” the little boy asked, ‘Did you ever get depressed in the prison camp?”

“Well,” Wallace gently replied, “We did get a bit miserable from time to time, but we always knew there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

The little boy then sat down beaming with satisfaction for having inspired such a witty answer from the distinguished speaker.

Most men do not live to see memorials erected in their honour. But Wallace lived to see his name carved in granite, alongside all the other members of Churchill’s famous “few”, on the Battle of Britain Memorial Wall at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent.

He also lived to see his name cast in bronze on the Battle of Britain Monument in London. I know that it was an immense source of pride to Wallace that he should visit the monument in London with his three grandsons here today. As long as the epic events of 1940 are remembered in this country then Wallace will never be forgotten. His place in our national history is assured.

It was a privilege to have known you, Wallace.

Thank you for all that you did for us.

And thank you for all you did for our country. DR JEREMY CRANG